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How expedition art can change your world view

· Art,Creativity,Travel,Expeditions

“It’s still mostly dark when I tentatively unzip the flysheet on our tent. I’m trying to be quiet, but that’s something that tent manufacturers don’t seem to have built in yet. It’s warm on this sandbank on the Mississippi, so we’ve shed the outer shell of the tent, but there are still some very industrious bugs we’d rather not have as bedfellows. I wiggle out of the gap I’ve made, trying to not wake my tent mate and step, barefoot, into glorious sand. It’s cold between my toes and crunchy underfoot in the early morning. These sandbanks haven’t met with human feet since they were covered in the high water some months earlier. My feet haven’t been barefoot for this long in years.

I can see our fantastic guides have lit a fire on the beach already, so I gravitate towards the light and the promise of a thick, strong morning coffee. But as I approach, past the fire, I see a figure seated by the edge of the water. A table laid out in front of him. He is working in almost complete darkness, his hands dancing across the paper, recreating what he sees in front of him – the very edges of a sunrise nipping at the horizon. He has tools of his art scattered around him and I’m fascinated. I slowly approach and quietly ask if I can sit with him. He smiles, of course agrees. But then he hands me paper and a bag of watercolour pencils.”

It’s a strange thing to admit, but I feel like I didn’t see the world properly until I started drawing.

Me and John painting on the banks of the Mississippi River in 2016. Photo credit: Julia Geens

Turns out it’s pretty hard to capture a sunrise on paper. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was quite straightforward, as there is so much art depicting the glorious start of the day. Take my word for it – it’s not. The light and shadows shift and change constantly, as do the colours and tone of everything in the landscape. I joined legendary river guide John Ruskey every morning to chase the sunrise across my paper for the rest of our two-week Mississippi paddle. The work I created was objectively terrible from a fine artist perspective, but it didn’t matter. It was the act of doing it that changed my entire perspective. It’s a strange thing to admit, but I feel like I didn’t see the world properly until I started drawing.

Expedition sketch in pastel from eXXpedition North Pacific 2018

A love of creative outputs

As part of a series of craft course sign ups with my mother, I signed up for a painting class in a local village. This came after a catastrophic term of small-scale sculpture, where my teacher gave me lots of handy, ‘supportive’ tips (“I find this very effective with my special needs class, so I think you will find it useful too”).

My final piece is a running joke in my family and my sister keeps the world’s ugliest ceramic squirrel as her good luck charm. New friends think it’s “so sweet” until they discover that the piece they thought was created by a five-year-old sibling was not. It is actually the tortured work of a 30-year-old having some kind of creative crisis in a room full of middle-aged women creating perfect dog sculptures. (My mother, incidentally, was great at sculpture and didn’t make a dog.)

On my creative quest, I have tried book binding, jewellery making, leather working, calligraphy and several other courses that I’ve definitely forgotten. But I’ve always harboured this deep jealousy of people who could draw. Turns out it’s a taught skill that gets better the more you practice – who knew? One day I googled drawing class and found an art class a few villages along… and so began my painting and drawing education. I’d been attending for only about three weeks before I went on my Mississippi paddle.

Trees are not just green

The thing about drawing is that to be good at it, you really have to look at things and actually see them. Not what you think you see or what your brain tells you is there, but what is actually there. A straight line is rarely actually straight and changes depending on the angle you are viewing it from. A tree is not just green – it’s dark green and light green and grey and yellow and maybe even purple and blue depending on the time of day. This makes it an endlessly frustrating process, but also revolutionary. Quite frankly, I’ve become one of those nutty people that looks at things and exclaims to the nearest person, “OH MY GOD, have you seen that branch? It’s RED but also BLUE”. I’m literally just a hoot to be around.

When we take a photograph of a view or a particular object, how much love and attention does the captured thing really receive?

I am building my skills all the time (my art teacher is a wildly sarcastic genius) and art has now become an essential part of my adventures.

Sketch of guesthouse on a writer's retreat in the Pyrenees in 2019

When we take a photograph of a view or a particular object, how much love and attention does the captured thing really receive? Photographs often replace actually looking. If you don’t believe me, trying being more mindful next time you think of whipping your camera or phone out. Look around you at the next busy beauty spot and really notice how many people stop for more than just a minute to briefly look, photograph and move on. I have thousands of photographs like this that I might never look at again. Or if I do, there is no context to them – where was this? Why did I take this? The lucky one in 100 might get a five-minute edit for Instagram.

So whenever I can, I stop and do a sketch instead.

A short history

Painting and drawing outside is not a new phenomenon – it's known as 'plein air', which has its routes in French 19th-century outdoor painting. There is also a whole community of expedition artists, who do their own expeditions, or join scientific or exploratory trips to capture and interpret what is seen.

Photography killed off the role of the original expedition artist, who would document finds. However, this position is anecdotally having a resurgence, as groups begin to recognise the benefits of multidisciplinary teams and perspectives. Not to mention the communication potential of artworks after the expedition is completed.

Expedition sketch on board a plastic pollution expedition in 2018 in the Broken Islands, Canada

5 reasons why you should try art on your next adventure

1. You actually 'see' what you are looking at. It doesn’t matter to me that the sketch might not look exactly like what I’m sketching, because by stopping and paying attention I really see it. I notice that half hidden house on the side of the mountain, I see how the light dances on the lake and, yes, I can tell you that trees are never ever just green.

2. It gives you time to ‘just be’. I don’t know why, but it seems weird to stop and actually look at a landscape and not be rushing on to the next thing. Drawing or painting gives you the opportunity to just sit because you are keeping your hands busy. I hadn’t noticed how nice it is to stay in one beautiful spot for a longer period of time until I started doing art on the go.

3. Art keeps memories fresh. Sketches completed on adventures, walks or while travelling have teleportation powers. I look at a sketch I did five years ago and I can tell you where I was, what temperature it was, who else was there – this is despite the fact that it probably doesn’t even look exactly like the place.

4. It's a reflection of what you see. The beauty of art as an alternative to photography, is that you get to focus on what you want and leave out what you want too. This is your creation. You can even just use absolute non-sensical colours, you can add in or take away people or things, you can move things closer together or further apart. Of course, if you want to create a carbon copy of what you see in front of you – then run with it, but you don’t have to be a slave to exactness if you don’t want to be.

5. You can make your sketchbook into your diary. I used to be an avid diary writer, but these days I find it a tedious process. Sketching when travelling is a relaxing alternative to writing a diary, and you can add notes around it if you want to include some words for your memories too. Then you get the best of both worlds!

Getting started

If this sounds like something you want to try, I have good news - you don’t need many materials. The more you art you do, the more materials you’ll want to buy (I once was having lunch with my mum in a local cafe and was showing her my new watercolour paper, and the table of strangers next to us were literally gushing over it too. It’s a whole thing.), but you can start with any drawing/ painting implement and paper. Even a biro or crayons or a HB pencil. When/ if you decide to upgrade, buy the best you can afford – cheap art materials don’t make you fall in love with them and will make you wonder how anyone creates anything from them. I currently take watercolour pencils, watercolour pans, brushes and a small amount of ink, but my kit changes all the time depending on my mood and the development of my process.

I'm not doing as much expedition art at the moment, as I'm grounded due to COVID lockdown, but if you are interested in what I'm getting up to in the meantime you can follow my dedicated art Instagram account here.

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